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DISPATCH FROM L.A.: Hoping for Oscar Attention, A Trio of Foreign Language Titles Win Over Audiences

DISPATCH FROM L.A.: Hoping for Oscar Attention, A Trio of Foreign Language Titles Win Over Audiences

This year’s AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, screening ten foreign-language titles submitted for Oscar consideration, includes a trio of titles that in the first half of the event have each been a hit with festivalgoers. Marc Ruthermond‘s “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days” and Gavin Hood‘s “Tsotsi were popular over the festival’s first weekend and over the past two days, crowds have embraced Jean-Marc Vallee‘s “C.R.A.Z.Y.” Other foreign submissions to the Academy Awards(R) playing at this year’s AFI Fest include France’s “Merry Christmas” (Joyeux Noel), Georgia’s “Tblisis-Tblisi,” Hungary’s “Fateless,” Israel’s “What a Wonderful Place,” Mexico’s “On the Other Side,” Norway’s “Kissed by Winter” (Vinterkyss), and Sweden’s “Zozo.”

A Young Student Resists Nazi Oppression

Germany’s “Sophie Scholl” is the true story of one of Germany’s most famous anti-Nazi heroines. Julia Jentsch stars as Sophie Scholl, a young German woman who fiercely opposed the Nazi government along with her brother and others as part of an underground student resistance movement known as the White Rose. The film focuses on her last six days, from her arrest to her interrogation, trial and sentence. The film, which is Germany’s most successful drama of this year, has already received numerous awards worldwide, including three Lolas (the German Academy Awards), two Silver Bears for best director and best actress at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival, as well as top prizes at the recent Hamptons International Film Festival. “I was personally drawn to the story of Sophie Scholl in particular because she had the possibility of saving her life, but she still admitted to [her acts of dissent],” Ruthermond told indieWIRE during a conversation at a party sponsored by European Film Promotion at the festival Saturday evening.

Jentsch, who is in the United States for the first time for AFI Fest, described herself as personally apolitical, but said she jumped at the chance to play Scholl. “I’m an actress and I was very glad to get this role. It’s amazing to have such a film with a message.” The actress also said she based her portrayal of Scholl by reading her diaries and by meeting her sister.

Ruthermond said that he and Jentsch have been traveling with the film at festivals around the world, but said his initial showing was among the most important. “The first screening was with the [Scoll] family and they were happy about it and said they were pleased young people will see the story – although her sister complained the end credits were too long (laughs).” The director said the screenings in Israel were among the most moving for him personally. “In Israel, many people were crying because they said after ward that they had thought nobody resisted in Germany [during the war]. It was an honor for us to hear that.”

During a Q & A following the film, many audience members likened opposition to the war in Iraq with certain aspects of the story’s depiction of dissent. One person in the large theater spontaneously yelled out as the Q & A concluded, “This country needs to hear this message at this time!” “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days” will next screen later this week at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as part of its German cinema series.

Coming-of Age in Canada, With a Cool Soundtrack

Spanning twenty years in the life of a young man growing up in French speaking Canada, Jean-Marc Vallee’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.” surrounds his sexually confused main character (played by Marc Andre-Grondin) with an eclectic family, weaves in a notable soundtrack that ranges from Bowie to Patsy Cline, and unveils a compelling visual style. The AFI Fest competition film, still looking for a U.S. distribution deal, debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September before winning the award for best Canadian film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Producer Pierre Even is eyeing a U.S. deal but trying to find the right partner who can work with him to clear music rights for the soundtrack, an essential element of the sometimes emotional, crowd-pleasing new film.

“C.R.A.Z.Y.” director Jean-Marc Vallee with producer Pierre Even at AFI Fest Tuesday. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

During a Q & A session here at AFI Fest Tuesday, Vallee explained that he had specific music in mind when developing each character in the film, one likes Charles Aznavour and Buddy Rich, another listens to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, while still another prefers mambo. While on the visual side, the filmmaker (who has directed a mix of TV and feature projects) explained that he sought to create something he’d be “happy to direct and watch.”

The film, Canada’s submission for the coveted foreign language Oscar, is based on true stories from the life of co-writer Francois Boulay, himself from a family of brothers. The main character, unable to deal with his own sexual orientation, faces challenges in dealing with his father and struggles in the relationship he has with his older brother who has an increasing drug problem. “Zac, our main character, feels different, but he doesn’t want to be different, because he fears that he would lose the thing that is most important to him — the love of his father,” Vallee told the AFI Fest daily paper, “‘C.R.A.Z.Y. isn’t so much a ‘coming out’ story as a coming-of-age love story between a father and son.”

A Thug’s Life in Johannesburg

Based on the only novel ever written by noted playwright Athol Fugard, Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” is having its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest. The movie, winner of major awards at its two previous festival appearances, was recently acquired by Miramax and has been chosen as South Africa’s submission for consideration in the Academy Awards foreign language film competition.

Director Gavin Hood outside the theater following the screening of his film “Tsotsi” at the Hollywood ArcLight Saturday afternoon. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

In “Tsotsi,” the title character is a brutal criminal who carjacks a privileged local woman, only to discover — after stealing her car — that the woman’s infant child is in a baby carriage in the back seat. Deciding to raise the child himself, Tsotsi is forced to enlist — at gunpoint — the maternal help of another woman.

Loosely basing the film on Fugard’s novel, Hood explores the violent life of a young thug living in a township of Johannesburg, where his name is literally translated as “thug.” Hood updates Fugard’s 50s era story and sets it in modern times amidst the poverty and crime of the African ghetto. Struck by the powerful performance of Presley Cheweneyagae in the title role, audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival awarded the film the People’s Choice Award back in September and it won both the audience award and the Michael Powell Award for best new British feature at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Chatting with a full house crowd after an AFI Fest screening, Hood explained that essentially, the movie is about a “guy looking for his inner child.”

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